BY ROMANO MULLIN When you walk into the Students’ Union, chances are you won’t fail to notice the seven beaming faces of our sabbatical officers shining down benevolently on the student body, assuring us that all is right in the world and we are safe in their hands. What you might not notice just as much is the extensive team of permanent and part-time staff that back up our
sabbatical officers and run the union effectively from behind the scenes. The seven full time sabbatical officers who head up the union executive don’t run the job solo- they are supported by staff including a Director and Deputy Director, as well as others who work in areas such as democracy, retail management, student services and entertainment who ensure that the union stays in ship shape throughout the year, and crucially, when the handover from one sabbatical team to another occurs. It’s often been said that staff, not sabbs, are the ones who have the real power. We caught up with current President Jason O’Neill, who was full of praise for the staff at the union. ‘The most common analogy for the relationship between the officers and the union staff is like an elected government and a civil service. This is true to an extent- they’re there to ensure the smooth handover from one team to another, and so on, but it goes further than that. They’re also there to support the officers and have lots of experience for us to draw upon.’ When asked if it would be better for unions to be run by staff instead of elected officers who can sometimes change more frequently than a set of traffic lights, O’Neill disagreed. ‘Students’ Unions are there for students- it’s important that their representatives come from the student body. It’s all about getting the balance right and making sure the union can be successful and effective, and have the biggest impact possible on students’ lives.’ One thing is clear- as election time rolls around the focus will inevitably be on the manifestos, backgrounds and allegiances of the candidates. Yet a union cannot function effectively- perhaps it can’t function at all, without the people who decide to spend their working lives enabling student officers to make the changes they need. After all, there are some 24,500 students enrolled at Queen’s alone. It’s a Promethean task to ask of seven recent graduates. The experience, commitment and dedication of permanent staff members in everything from applying for loans, maintaining retail units, and managing the multifarious aspects of entertainment in the union mean it doesn’t just function as a political entity: it operates in the real world as well. There is a tendency around election time for students to forget that the Union is not just a political mouthpiece, but a living, breathing and dynamic workforce of people who commit their time to improving the student experience, no matter who is elected. The Gown asked a number of staff members what they thought of their roles, and even if we should abolish sabbatical officers altogether. Perhaps as a sign of how busy they are, they were unable to reply before we went to print. But when you go to the polls on 5-7 March 2013, spare a thought for the staffers who will be ushering in the new slate of sabbatical officers that you elect.